Director Max Lewendel has taken Theatre of the Absurd to a new level in his engrossing production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson in a translation by Donald Watson at the Southwark Playhouse, presented by Icarus Theatre Collective.
an immensely rewarding production
When considering how to approach the play Lewendel had at his disposal the newly installed Creative Captioning technology, supported by Arts Council England. Its main purpose is to ensure that every performance is accessible for deaf and hard of hearing audiences, but it opens up a host of design and performance opportunities. It allows for the script to be projected onto surfaces anywhere on the stage as it is spoken and enables the appearance of graphics. These fit in perfectly with the Absurdist concept of words and images having a life of their own, reaching a point at which they become threatening and overwhelm the characters.
The remarkable projection design for the play is the result of hours of painstaking work by Ben Glover who created in the order of a thousand captions which integrate with the actor’s words, the focused sound design by Matt Downing and the lighting design by Stevie Carty which with subtlety enhances the increasingly dark substance of the play. Their combined efforts result in some 1500 cues operated from the deck in a very busy eighty-five minute production.
Pupil (Hazel Caulfield) arrives at the flat of Professor (Jerome Ngonadi), and in the simple act of ringing the doorbell sets the amusing and captivating tone of what is to follow. She is eventually greeted by the dour housekeeper Marie (Julie Stark). The contrast of dispositions could not be greater. Caulfield is the ebullient and excited student, thrilled to be attending her lesson and given to bouts of giggling. Is it that Marie knows what is to come, that Stark remains unmoved, po-faced, detached and matter-of-fact?
In comparison to Pupil, Ngonadi, at least initially, is calm, rational and, as might be expected, professorial. But their demeanours gradually reverse as he becomes increasingly irate at the girl’s inability to grasp what he is saying, and she, beset with a toothache, cowers into her shell as his rage increases. The script is repetitive and full of potential pitfalls but Ngonadi retains control throughout, highlighting the nonsensical lines with variations in tempo and intonation. The Professor, however, increasingly descends into manic diatribes that build up to the tragic conclusion.
The exchanges between Pupil and Professor take place in one room that is deceptively simple; a dining table a couple of chairs, a bookcase and a large cupboard. Christopher Hone’s set however houses secrets that are revealed as the action proceeds. No teacher is complete without a chalkboard and, as the wooden items open up a room full of surfaces emerges to receive captions and on which The Professor can write. Costume designer Isabella Van Braeckel clads him in a traditional academic gown over a dull brown jacket, trousers and waistcoat. Marie’s clothes are similarly reserved, both of them dressed in contrast to the bright girlish colours of Pupil’s coat, skirt, blouse and cardigan.
The production captures the rhythms of Absurdist writing and the cast delivers with sincerity and due seriousness, thus heightening the comic intensity of the work and its surreal nature. The opening motif repeats at the end, so that in accordance with Absurdist style the work comes full circle. It’s a neat and satisfying conclusion to an immensely rewarding production.